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Pretty Authors Make Graves

First published in The Virginia Quarterly Review

By Steve Almond.

There’s a helluva lot more of us, than there is of them.
– Frank Zappa

I was an ugly kid. Buck teeth. Fat cheeks. Bad hair. Terrible hair. You look at the old albums and it’s a museum of bad hair. I should have had myself shellacked. Maybe I was shellacked. I don’t even remember.

But listen: most of the good writers out there are ugly. Butt ugly. Plug ugly. Fugly. I’d give you a long list of examples, but this isn’t that kind of thing. I’m not interested in research. Research bores me. You know what I’m talking about, anyway. All that literary dogmeat. Except for Faulkner. Faulkner was hot. But he was a drunk.

I only trust the ugly writers, anyway. Deep down, those are the ones who have earned their wrath. All the rest of them, the pretty boy and girl authors, screw them. Or, better yet, don’t screw them. Get them all hot and bothered. Tell them you know Terry Gross, you once dated her former personal assistant, and then leave them there, lathered up, grinning, in a hot cloud of their own fabulous bone structure.

As for author photos, they’re a goddamn fraud. The photo on my first book is Exhibit A. It’s the most pathetic sensitivo-beefcake shot of the century. My friends tell me I look like a gay porn star. Maybe I am a gay porn star. Maybe my gay porn star name is Maxi Spray. Doesn’t matter. Anyone who’s seen me in person knows the truth. Fugly.

And what’s not to be Fugly about? If you want to make art in this culture, if you want to shake people down for their feelings, you’re ugly by proxy anyway. All that’s going to happen is this: you’ll sit down and decide you’re profound and you’ll write a lot of dreck for a long time and various people along the way will feed you little niblets of praise, which you deserve, but not for what you’re actually writing, which is still a stinking heap of narcissism. Then, eventually, you’ll start to send your work out to the bad parents of the world and they’ll find it (and you) ugly and send you little slips of paper with passive-aggressive inscriptions printed by machines and you’ll start to see yourself, finally, as they do: an ugly little wannabe freak with no business card and a car that makes guys stop you in the parking lot of your supermarket and offer body work for cheap. This is called progress.

Because what you’re aiming for here is to rediscover that inconsolably ugly little kid inside you, because that’s what triggers the beauty jones.

Some measures that will help:

1. Watch a lot of television – Television is the place where you will realize that beauty makes people stupid. If you keep watching for long enough, it will dawn on you that the opposite is just as true.
2. Read the Bible – Not the whole thing, just enough to figure out the basic point: that God’s toughest gig is to love the ugly.
3. Stop exercising – Two key words for you here are Restless and Flabby. Pasty is also of considerable import.
4. Stay away from healthy romantic interaction – The worst thing you can do, actually, is to use the funk of sexual success as a hedge against the appropriate depths of self-horror. Remember: you’re probably clever enough to fool someone better looking for a while. But in the end, you’re ugly. That’s where you live, and you live there alone.

The rest (bad news!) consists of the dogged, lonely work. You sit there. You push your characters around. And when you, or they, feel ugly enough, have felt ugly enough for long enough, a little thrush of beauty unfurls to rescue both of you. Then it disappears.

If you’re truly unlucky, some of the bad parents out there will start to accept your crap and you’ll move on to the next set of bad parents until finally you’re dealing with the world of New York Publishing, which is inhabited by bright, ambitious people who hate your guts for still trying. They will make you feel worse and worse and uglier and uglier and in the end you’ll need to thank them, because they, too, are helping you find that inner ugly schmuck kid I keep mentioning.

I use the italics, though, because it is perfectly reasonable to fantasize about punching these asswipes for years and years, because that is precisely what they deserve. They deserve to be punched. But they are only emissaries from the world of commerce, bit players, pimps and petty tyrants, and they have only the numbers to defend them, which is to say, they have no defense, whereas all of us, the artists, we have our ugliness and the resultant beauty pinned to our lapels.

Are you picking up what I’m putting down?

Let me tell you a little story.

When I was in seventh grade I fell in with a crowd of pretty people. At my school, they were called rah rahs. They were viewed with derision by the rest of the population, who were either physically ugly or wrongly colored or suffered from the ultimate form of disfigurement, which, in this culture, is poverty.

I myself was plain ugly, but I’d gone to a grade school that nobody recognized and so I was a novelty and eager to please and, as such, was adopted by the rah rahs. There was one girl in particular, Nicole Taylor, and she was absolutely stunning: blond hair, blue eyes, sky jump nose, just what you’d expect. She was also – and I’m not sure why I’m mentioning this, but it seems obscurely relevant – a Mormon.

One night, we were at a party up in Los Altos Hills, the wealthy part of town, and we started playing spin the bottle. Nicole spun the bottle and it landed on me. I was absolutely terrified. She knee-walked over to me and she set her lips to mine and stuck her tongue out. What I’m telling you: she pried my mouth open with her hard little tongue and jabbed it around once or twice and then she pulled away from me and returned to her place with an expression of icy disgust.

She never forgave me for that indignity, which was the indignity of the beautiful having to embrace the ugly. And yet she remained strangely fascinated by me. She couldn’t understand why I was a part of her clique. It offended her strict sense of social and aesthetic order. More so: she simply couldn’t understand how I could persist in my ugliness, how I got along in the world with no shell of beauty to protect me. This threatened her terribly.

At a party some months later, at her own lavish home, I and a kid named Troy took part in an impromptu chugalug contest. Troy was as boring as a stump, but he was also the most handsome boy in the history of the world. He was so handsome you wanted to lick his skin. So we chugged our bottles of Sprite and let the carbonation burn our throats and suddenly Nicole appeared in front of us and said: Steve Almond, if you spit that soda on me I’ll have my boyfriend kick your ass!

I spit the soda on her.

I didn’t mean to. It was a reflex move. Nicole burst into tears. She spent the rest of the party in a state of puffy bereavement, while I cowered about and everyone else shook their heads. Nicole got what she wanted: I was neatly expulsed from the rah rahs.

The lesson is this: justice can be its own form of beauty. And this: the ugly are doomed to a certain kind of solitude. Alright, fine. What else is the life of a writer? We’re all frauds waiting to be found out. We’re all cowering dogs. We’re all hoping to wring a little beauty from the neck of shame. Fine. Fine fine fine.

Let me tell you another story.

When I was in tenth grade I went to see a play at the local high school auditorium. It was a play about Vietnam, something righteous and tragic. I got there late, so I had to sit in the front row. (Do I need to tell you that I came alone? That I could not find anyone to accompany me?) Just at the end of the second act, during the big, tense soliloquy by the star – who was supposed to be ugly, disfigured by the war, but was, in fact, as handsome as James Dean – I cut a fart. It wasn’t a very loud fart. Just a quiet little fart that slipped out. But it came during one of those hushed, actorly pauses and it caused the people sitting in the front three rows to start laughing, softly and incontrovertibly. And when the lights went up I hurried from the theater and went to get my bike from the racks and I heard a bunch of kids behind me laughing.

When I turned around they stopped abruptly and one of them, a nice, sort of homely girl named Kendall, came over and asked me how I was doing. She felt bad for me. I was The Boy Who Farted. For the rest of high school, I would be The Boy Who Farted. I would be renowned, in the small, merciless universe of my high school, for having let a little cloud of ugliness escape my body in public.

When people ask me how I came to write and why I write so much and why there’s such an embarrassing yearning for beauty in the shit I write, I often feel like telling them this story. Asking them: what would you do if you were The Boy Who Farted? Wouldn’t you want to convince the world to regard you in some more flattering light?

A few more items of business:

Buy art, okay? Quit mucking about like a cheapskate and wolfing down burgers from Fat Food. Stop throwing your money down Hollywood’s sewers. Vote with your dough and vote for the stuff written or sculpted or filmed by the ugly. Actually concentrate on who you’re having sex with. Hold your one and only heart to a higher standard. And so on.

I’m proud to be ugly, and proud to make pretty things.

What are you?

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Steve Almond is the author of two short story collections, My Life in Heavy Metal and The Evil BB Chow, and the non-fiction book Candyfreak. He lives and rocks in Somerville, MA.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, August 10th, 2005.